April 12, 2004

Life Goes On in black-and-white silence 

By Brian Green

Theater Emory will push the boundary between theater and film with the premiere of Life Goes On, believed to be the first-ever American theater production in the style of a black-and-white silent film, running April 15-24 in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater.

Theater studies Associate Professor John Ammerman, who wrote and directed the play, hopes to recreate the feel of a 1920s silent film using unusual costuming, set design, acting styles and "every shade of gray imaginable" in presenting Life Goes On.

The concept developed out of Ammerman's own interest in silent films and his desire to explore the challenge of conveying emotion, thought and relationship through the beauty of physical action. Inspiration came from Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Marcel Marceau, with whom Ammerman studied.

Life Goes On will be silent except for live piano accompaniment composed and performed by Bryan Mercer, and will rely on the actors' use of movement and expression to tell its story of finding hope in the darkest of times.

"The idea arose during the many years I spent writing and performing pantomimes for the theater," Ammerman said. "I have been a fan of silent films since I was a child, and I wanted to bring the style of this form to the stage."

The play centers on a wealthy family in Detroit just before the 1929 stock market crash. It opens with a wedding celebration for the daughter of a wealthy banker, played by Kim Shipley, in the lobby of the banker's hotel. Word comes that the market has crashed, and subsequently the banker commits suicide.

The story then jumps to one year later and follows the exploits of the groom (played by student Eric Reeser)--now a struggling banker himself--the bride (played by student Anne Maxwell), the bride's family, and a Chaplinesque bellhop (played by alumna Lauren Gunderson) as they struggle with life in the Great Depression. Additional cast members include Marshall Marden, Kathleen McManus, Suzanne Jordan Roush, Karen Whitaker and Emory students Daniel Bayer, Erica Hodgdon, Melissa Roy and David Silverstein.

To suggest the two-dimensional feel of a movie screen, the stage will be set in a frame of drapes like those found in a period movie house. Everything in the audience's view will be shades of gray, including prints and patterns. There even will be a black and gray dog that will appear onstage. "Dialogue slates" will appear to complete the illusion of a 1920s-era movie experience.

"This piece is different from previous silent-film-based productions in that it is in total silence (except for the live piano), it is completely set in a black-and-white world, and it relies on the use of movement and gesture as a language," Ammerman said. "I am looking forward to exploring the art of movement in a way that one is rarely able to do."

Eight performances of Life Goes On will be presented: April 15-17, 22-24 at 8 p.m.; and April 18 and 24 at 2 p.m. The April 16 show will be a pay-what-you-can performance, and an "Artists Up Close" discussion will follow the April 18 performance.

Tickets are $12 for Emory faculty, staff and discount groups; $6 for Emory students; and $15 for all others. They may be purchased through the Arts at Emory box office at 404-727-5050 or online at www.emory.edu/ARTS/.